“I’m ‘brained.’ Not right brained or left brained. I have a brain.”

–Neil deGrasse Tyson




Neuromyth #1: People are “left-brained” or “right-brained.”

Popular culture has taught us that logical, linear-thinking people are left-brain dominant, while those of us who are creative and artistic are right-brain dominant. The problem with this black or white kind of thinking? The left-brain/right-brain neuro-dichotomy concept is not scientifically true. Neuroscience research has never supported the model of people being “left-brained” or “right-brained.” In actuality, neuronal networks in the human brain are interwoven, and the right and left hemispheres of the human brain function in tandem–they don’t operate independently.

The origins of split-brain theories derive from a legitimate study on cognitive processing that was conducted several decades ago by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga. Although Gazzaniga’s research yielded important discoveries regarding functional lateralization in the brain (a fancy way of saying “how our brain hemispheres communicate with each other”), his research also led to the perpetuation of incorrect information in our popular culture. Neither the left nor the right brain hemisphere is totally dominant in any one person, and there’s little evidence to support the notion that “creative” and “logical” personalities correspond to brain hemisphere preference.


Neuromyth #2: The brains of men and women are fundamentally different.

Speaking at an academic conference in 2005, Lawrence Summers–who was president of Harvard University at that time–made a remark that sparked an enormous controversy. Essentially, Summers suggested that biological and genetic differences between men and women underlie the underrepresentation of women in tenured faculty positions in science and engineering.

This past December, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences further undermined the idea that male and female brains are physiologically distinct. Human brains, the research team at Rockefeller University determined, don’t subscribe to “categories of male or female. Their distinguishing features vary across a spectrum.”


Neuromyth #3: Depression is caused by low levels of serotonin.

Beginning in the 1980s, pharmaceutical marketing espoused the notion that depression could be treated by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Though arguably a useful metaphor, this “chemical imbalance” explanation isn’t substantiated by research and is a gross oversimplification of neurotransmitters and brain function. SSRIs do work—but not all the time, and not for all people. And scientists aren’t exactly sure how they work; “chemical imbalance” cartoons produced by pharmaceutical companies were a real misrepresentation of reality.


Neuromyth #4: People have different “learning styles.”

Like New York magazine and other news outlets have reported, the idea that people learn differently according to their individual “preference for visual, auditory or kinesthetic cues” is a myth. Misconceptions about the ways in which humans learn appear to derive from the scientific fact that different areas of the brain cortex play different roles in visual, auditory, and sensory processing. However, that students learn differently depending on what part of their brain works “best” is specious.  As Bristol University professor Paul Howard-Jones points out, “the brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound.”